And there are few higher than the inheritance of a kingdom. The Lion in Winter is that rare film that combines humanity with good, old-fashioned double-crosses, lies, bluffs, and manipulations. Somehow—even though it’s 1183 and its kings, queens, and princes fighting—we can see ourselves in it.
Perhaps this is because Henry II has the kick chickens out of the way as he crosses the yard, or dogs wander around the cavernous castle, or everyone always huddles by the fire to get warm. When Henry gathers his family at Christmas to name an heir, including Queen Eleanor who’s been locked up for the past 10 years, family drama meets political intrigue.
As the real drama comes to the forefront—a man and woman, Henry and Eleanor, threatening to destroy each other—the film shifts from far off fantasy to the stuff of kitchens and bedrooms. Anyone who has grown up with siblings (or parents, for that matter) knows what it means to become furious with those you love; to sometimes live in an odd relationship of care and anger. The political considerations, along with the witty lines and brilliant performances by Anthony Hopkins, Peter O’Toole, and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor (a role for which she won an Oscar, by the way), somehow make the dysfunction fun.
But after the credits have rolled, it’s Hepburn whose lines resonate. She confronts us: “We breed wars,” she rages, “We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little—that’s how peace begins.”
We’re left wondering: Do we have the same syphilis inside as these kings and queens of long ago? And, especially in light of recent events, do we go to the theaters to feed our syphilis or to mourn it through catharsis? Do we watch hoping to remember that if we love one another even a little, peace begins?